Practice made perfect as Tannochbrae comes to Melrose

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IT is 30 years since the great Scots physician and novelist A. J. Cronin passed away at his home in Switzerland.

But his spirit and legacy will be writ large at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in Melrose with a unique event in honour of his greatest creation: Dr Finlay.

To those of us of a certain age, the weekly consultation, via our black-and-while televisions, at the GP practice in the fictional Scottish town of Tannochbrae was a standing family dish.

Based on Cronin’s Country Doctor novella, the affectionate BBC series, which lasted for more than 191 episodes from 1962 till 1971, related the gentle and heartwarming travails of crusty Dr Angus Cameron (Andrew Cruickshank), his eponymous junior partner Dr Alan Finlay (Bill Simpson) and Janet (Barbara Mullen), the unflappable housekeeper and receptionist at Arden House.

A young Kelso laddie called Alistair Moffat was also a fan of the show.

And when he became director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1976, he was delighted to strike up a friendship with Andrew Cruickshank who, at the time, was chairman of the capital’s annual arts spectacular.

“Andrew was a wonderful character actor and, like me, had hugely happy memories of Dr Finlay’s Casebook on which Cronin himself was the primary writer from 1962 to 64.”

Fast forward to 1994 and Moffat, by now director of programmes for STV, jumped at the chance of bringing the Tannochbrae experience to a new generation of viewers, the BBC rights to the show having lapsed. The new series, entitled simply Dr Finlay, proved a network hit for ITV, running for five seasons and winning a Scottish Bafta.

Recreating the roles of Cameron, Finlay and Janet were the late Ian Bannen, David Rintoul and Annette Crosby, who went on to become the long-suffering wife of Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave.

“To have played a part in reviving what was considered a superb reworking is one of the fondest memories of my time in television,” recalled Moffat, who founded the Border Book Festival, which takes place at Harmony House from June 16 to 19, seven years ago.

Preparing the programme for this year’s event, Moffat, in his role of festival director, made another key decision: to invite Welsh author Alan Davies, who had just published A. J. Cronin – The Man Who Created Dr Finlay, to Melrose.

For Davies, writing the first full-time life of Cronin was the culmination of a lifelong passion. He recounts the story of the often neglected writer’s Scottish childhood, his medical career and his rise to literary prominence through books such as Hatter’s Castle, The Citadel and The Stars Look Down.

“When Alan agreed to come to the festival, I telephone David Rintoul to ask if he would be interested in joining in the session with some readings from Dr Finlay.

“He agreed without hesitation and went further, offering to bring his actress wife Vivien Heilbron, to read as Janet.”

The upshot of Moffat’s serendipitous machinations and the shared admiration for Cronin will be enjoyed in the Harmony Marquee on Sunday, June 19, at 7.45pm (tickets £9, £7 concessions).

“This event, featuring readings from two of Scotland greatest actors with unique insights from Cronin’s new biographer, chimes perfectly with the festival’s mantra – ‘where words come alive’,” said Moffat.

Meanwhile, Heilbron’s most memorable television role as Chris Guthrie in the adaptation of Sunset Song, will be revived earlier the same afternoon in the Lochcarron Marquee at 3.15pm, with Rintoul supporting with passages from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s beautiful narrative. The show is already a sell out.